White Park Bay, Ballintoy, Ballycastle.
The stunning, sweeping sandy beach of White Park Bay is located in the small village of Ballintoy, County Antrim. Enjoy lazy summer days, picnics, sandcastle-making and leisurely strolls along this spectacular sandy beach which forms a white arc between two headlands on the North Antrim coast. Hidden away in a secluded location, it is a perfect destination for a romantic getaway or quiet family holiday. Even on a busy day there is plenty of room for quiet relaxation.
Designated as an area of Scientific Interest due to its flora and fauna, the beach is backed by ancient dunes that provide a range of rich habitats for bird and animal life. White Park Bay was one of the first settlements of man in Ireland and evidence of these Neolithic settlers are continually being exposed on the raised beach and sand dune system. It is said that the manufacturing and exporting of axes and arrow heads took place from here, the limestone cliffs being a rich source of flint nodules.
Its stunning landscape is also ideal for the artist with its ocean beach views and breath-taking scenery.
Located nearby the bay is Ballintoy Harbour, once again providing a quaint setting and a wealth of rich history and culture.
Take a boat trip from Ballintoy Harbour to Sheep Island – a small, rocky habitat for varying sea birds, and Carrick-a-Rede Island, famous for its rope bridge.
Life and Legend
The wide expanse of the bay is best seen from the lay-by at the top and the midsummer sunset is one of the great spectacles of the North Coast. The sun sends a golden pathway to the shore, only disturbed by the ripples of tiny waves lapping the sand. After taking in the bay, turn right around. There seems to be a little stone shed on the summit of the hill behind the road. This is one of the series of passage graves along the heights of the coast. It was built here to capture the rays of the midsummer sunset.
People who have spent their lives abroad are drawn back here, to the strange contrast of the warmth of the people and the fierce extremes of the climate which were echoed in the stark battered hardness of the black and white cliffs and moderated by the soft sandy beach. It is an interface of the elements and as any scientist will tell you, it is at these interfaces that the dynamic changes take place, which we call life.
The little ruin, which is the only building in the bay, is set in a place called Ballalley and its name gives a clue as to what it was, for this was once the most famous school in Ireland. In the late 1700s, gentlemen sent their sons to White Park Bay College and its most famous pupil was Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh, the British Foreign Secretary during the Napoleonic wars. Ballalley was the ball alley where the boys played games in the long summer evenings two hundred years ago.
Although it is possible to get onto the bay by walking from Ballintoy, it is best to take the coast road to the car park. The steep stony path curls through the dunes, past the old school to the beach itself. Farmers are still allowed to graze their livestock on the dunes so from time to time visitors may meet a local sheep or cow.
At the east end of the bay towards Ballintoy, the rocks at the shore are shaped into fantastic shapes and in the evening they look like a primeval dragon sloping back into the depths for the night ahead. Nearby, Victorian fossil hunters found hundreds of gryphea, which the local people called devil’s toenails for they are grey and black and curled to a point like the toenails of the beast. They also found flint sea urchins and belemnites, prehistoric worms, eroded out of the limestone. They look like stone bullets, made in translucent red that nearly look good enough to eat.
Here too, 5,000 years ago, prehistoric people developed the most prestigious stone axe industry in western Europe, polishing a special blue stone from Rathlin Island into practical and aesthetic beauty… the perfect farmer’s tool for clearing land which finally evolved into the ceremonial maces we still see carried in processions today. These axes were exported to the rest of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales.
A few years ago the Northern Ireland small business agency used White Park Bay as the example of the earliest commercial export industry in the world. Once the trade had started, it went on… the bay has produced finds from classical Greece, Anatolia and Rome as well as its own wealth of local material…and in the middle of the wonder of the presence of the civilisations that touched this peaceful place, the waves crash and the gulls squeal and the colours shine. The bay was always a centre for fishing. It is suspended between the little ports of Portbradden and Ballintoy, a cornucopia of every kind of fish and shellfish imaginable.
But to think of White Park Bay purely in terms of fishing would be to undersell it. Industrial development began in the 1700s. Mining for all manner of fuels and ores took the place of the early flint and stone axe industries and for a while almost turned White Park Bay into the kind of industrial complex we would recognise today. White Park Bay is exceptionally rich, in fact it is astounding how natural and unspoilt is the feeling of the place, when it was a hotbed of human activity and industry for 8,000 years. Even the ruined school has an influence today, for its most famous pupil, Castlereagh, also wrote the Act of Union. But the place and its peace and spirituality cleanse and filter away the truck of the modern world.
As a poet once wrote,
Amazing is true
And beautiful you are
And right is the way you make me feel
And only unbelievable
That any of this is mine
A Mc L. May, during an excavation of the caves in 1943, found that the floor level of the cave had been raised 4 metres or 12 feet just with the debris which had been left by the people who lived there. Apart from the debris from their meals which gives us an indication of their diet, there were dress pins and a comb and even a bone phial, a tiny container for a liquid, precious in the time before Christ. So for thousands of years, people lived on the bay and in the caves surrounding it. They must have been attracted here by the vast resources of food and especially the large numbers of different varieties of fish and shellfish.
Templastragh – the church of the flame – was built by St. Gobhan, the second site chosen for the church. On the first site, when the builders came each morning to continue the work, the building was demolished. Eventually the saint had a dream where he saw a flame burning on the cliff top and he ordered the church to be built on its present site. The wall of the 16th century church still standing have the Saint Gobhan’s ancient cross-slab built into it.
Video produced by Ambient Light Productions